Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...
Day Ninety-Seven: The Nightmare Begins (The Daleks' Master Plan, Episode One)
Oh, lord, that's not a promising title to start on a twelve-day 'epic', is it? I have to confess, I've been slightly dreading this. I've found something of a new love for the Daleks since the start of this marathon, to the stage that by the time The Chase rolled around, I was actually quite excited to have them back again. Now, though, I'm faced with almost two whole weeks of them. I tend to start getting bored (and running out of things to say, too!) during a six-parter! Hold tight, this one could sink the entire experiment…
As per usual, I'm listening to this story via the narrated soundtrack, which is available for download at a really reasonable price! It's one of the few that I didn't already own, and I was dreading the cost, so that was a pleasant surprise. The audio opens with a pre-titles sequence that recaps the ending of The Myth Makers - all the stuff with Steven coming round in the TARDIS and Katarina believing that she's in limbo.
It's a fascinating way to introduce a new character to the show, and very different to any of the other introductions that we've had over the last fifty years. I must confess that I've been really looking forward to her arrival, because I wanted to settle something in my own mind: is she a companion or not!?! I was rather hoping that actually hearing the introduction might clear it up once and for all, but that doesn't seem to be the case.
Whereas the introductions of both Vicki and Steven were used to remind the viewer of the programme's basic premise, reintroducing us to the important aspects of the show, Katarina is just sort of treated with a sense of 'well, here she is then'. Even the Doctor, when he departs from Troy pretty rapidly, doesn't stop to panic that he's accidentally kidnapped a young handmaiden, he simply asks her to carry on looking after Steven. It's all very odd, and all a little rushed.
I don't know if it's this feeling of rushing that's making Katarina feel like a part-time companion, or if it's because I know that she'll be dead before too long. It's a shame, because there's a fair bit of scope in the idea, and the way she describes the TARDIS ('this isn't Troy. This is not even the world. This is the journey through the beyond') is wonderful. That said, she takes to the idea of how to open the TARDIS doors pretty quickly, and seems more comfortable in the ship that Bret Vyon does later on. Is this a case of Clarke's third law? To Katarina, this is all the magic of her Gods. To Brett, it's just a really really bizarre space ship.
The episode proper is a curious beast. For the first half or so, you could be forgiven to assume that it's a repeat of Mission to the Unknown, as the TARDIS doesn't appear until quite some way into the story. That's not a bad thing, though. Already, thanks to that earlier episode, we feel like we have a head start on the Doctor - we know what's going on inside the buildings he's headed for. We know that the Daleks are here on Kembel. We know that the Doctor should be avoiding the strange, spiky plants. Incidentally, the soundtrack narration makes a great point of mentioning that the Doctor doesn't know how dangerous these plants are.
The entire first section of the plot is a perfectly executed way of setting up the background for the story we're about to watch. We follow Vyon's communication from Kembel right back to the SSS central control, where it's being ignored by two people arguing over what to watch on TV. It's this simple, every day situation that makes it feel so natural when we're told of a 'Mars-Venus' game being screened (there's no need to give any more information, this paints in more than enough beautifully), and we're introduced to Mavic Chen, the 'Guardian of the Solar System'.
Sure, by the end of that section, it does feel a little like we've been given one massive info-dump, with lots and lots of information being thrown at us very quickly. Most of it can fade away into the background, though, just there to spark up if and when it's needed. We're told that it's now the year 4000, and we're given the date for the signing of a Solar System peace treaty. We're even given a date for it (was it 3975? Something like that?), and that's all I need to know. It's the 41st century. The Solar System is at peace, and Mavic Chen is the Simon Cowell of his age. Good enough.
Something that I'd been planning to bring up here - ever since the strange culture shock of going from Daleks in a jungle to the plains of ancient Troy - was that we don't need that other story between Mission to the Unknown and this. You could just as easily go from that episode into this one and it would flow just nicely. But then… what took me by surprise is that this episode picks up some time after that one, with Vyon and his comrade here out hunting for the SSS agent we saw back in Mission.
It feels like time has passed in the story, because time has passed for us watching it. That's clever. And because we know that the Daleks are around on Kembel, there's no need to make a big surprise out of it - the first time they appear, they simply turn up and kill a man. No questions asked. It's the most ruthless we've ever seen them, and it's really quite effective. It's just a shame that we spend the first few minutes being told that 'they' are out there, trying to build up at least a little suspense.
Next Episode: Day of Armageddon